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Jack has written more than 500 articles and essays for The Atlantic, Scientific American Mind, Wired, American Heritage, The History Channel Magazine, The Washington Post Magazine, Minnesota Monthly, and many other publications.

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Monday
Feb272017

The Black Stork: A physician’s cinematic argument for eugenics

by Jack El-Hai

A scene from The Black Stork (1917)

This year marks the centennial of one of the most infamous movies of the silent era, which made a case for allowing disabled infants to die and sparked a national debate between 1917 and the late 1920s before sinking into obscurity. Along the way, The Black Stork rocketed a physician to fame and symbolized America’s conflicted attitude toward eugenics and the value of human life.

The story of The Black Stork begins with the involvement of Chicago surgeon Harry J. Haiselden in the treatment of a severely disabled newborn, a boy apparently never given a first name but surnamed Bollinger, in 1915. The baby’s deformities, Haiselden warned the parents, would lead to a life of imbecility, misery, and crime if the child survived. The parents accepted Haiselden’s recommendation to withhold medical care and allow the infant to die.

The surgeon, a graduate of the University of Illinois College of Medicine, then took the unusual step of calling a press conference to announce his holding back of treatment to the baby Bollinger and his intent to campaign for the deaths of similarly disabled infants in the future. These children, he believed, endangered the genetic well-being of the nation, and if allowed to live they would bring despair to themselves and their families. Haiselden’s declaration sat well with devotees of eugenics and theories of the hereditary passage of criminal and antisocial traits, and he received support from the famed social activist Helen Keller. The doctor determined to extend the resulting firestorm of discussion and criticism by promoting his cause in the production of a feature-length motion picture.

Haiselden himself took the starring role in The Black Stork, which tells a story similar to that of the Bollingers. A mother gives birth to a child with congenital syphilis, contracted from the father’s “tainted blood.” The baby is mentally and physically disabled, and the parents follow the advice of their doctor (played by Haiselden) to let it die out of mercy and to protect society from having to tolerate an unhappy misfit in its midst. Promoters advertised the film as a “eugenic love story.”

The movie boasted impressive credits. Leopold and Theodore Wharton, who managed the famed melodramatic 1914 serial The Perils of Pauline, handled production, and Jack Lait, a celebrated muckraking reporter for the Chicago Herald, wrote the photoplay. 

Starting with early screenings for the Ohio state legislature and at movie palaces in Chicago and New York, The Black Stork was shown across the nation, often in tandem with lectures by Haiselden. Local censors frequently demanded cuts or changes.

Haiselden eventually participated in the deaths of at least three more disabled infants, sometimes accelerating the fatal result, before he suddenly expired from a cerebral hemorrhage in 1919. But The Black Stork lived on. In 1927, it was reedited into a new film with an even stronger eugenics message, titled Are You Fit to Marry? Eventually the film descended into distribution through touring road shows that specialized in presenting sensationalized entertainment. After the 1940s it vanished from view for decades until University of Michigan researcher and professor Martin Pernick tracked down the last viewable print of Are You Fit to Marry? and wrote a fascinating book that chronicles Haiselden’s career and influence.

Further reading:

Cheyfitz, Kirk. “Who Decides? The Connecting Thread of Euthanasia, Eugenics, and Doctor-Assisted Suicide.” Omega, Vol. 40(1) 5-16, 1999-2000.

Pernick, Martin S. The Black Stork: Eugenics and the Death of “Defective” Babies in American Medicine and Motion Pictures. Oxford University Press, 1999.

“Surgeon Lets Baby, Born to Idiocy, Die.” The New York Times, July 25, 1917.

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